Congress has taken the first step towards expanding the abilities of the United States intelligence community by advancing a draft bill that will ensure the government’s spy budget stays intact into next year.
A Senate commitee approved the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act during a closed door session on Tuesday, a bill that if signed into law will allow the US National Security Agency and other departments to keep receiving funding amid an international scandal that has caused calls for reform and even abolishment of the NSA both in the US and abroad in recent months.
Notwithstanding the backlash brought on by an array of secret NSA documents disclosed to the media by contractor-turned-leaked Edward Snowden since June, the Senate Intelligence Committee passed the draft bill by a 13-2 vote. Next, the full chamber will weigh in on the matter before it is reconciled with a sister act by way of the House of Representatives and sent to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
If approved with all of its current provisions in place, the law will let the government continue to fund programs operated for purposes of counterterrorism and nuclear weapon proliferation prevention, authorizing initiatives within more than a dozen federal departments, including the NSA and others that deal in covert, intelligence-gathering operations.
In a press release issued Tuesday by the committee, however, its members also acknowledged that the bill expands certain intelligence community operations, including in particular the very programs enacted to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
The bill, the committee wrote, “includes important provisions to enhance the conduct, accountability and oversight of the intelligence activities of the United States,” such as one intended “to protect against insider threats by adding necessary funds to deploy information technology detection systems across the intelligence community.”
The bill would also empower the Director of National Intelligence to “improve the government’s process to investigate . . . individuals with security clearances to access classified information,” while at same time “Instituting new statutory protections that protect the ability of legitimate whistleblowers to bring concerns directly to the attention of lawmakers, inspectors general and intelligence community leaders.”
Since the identity of the NSA leaker was revealed to be 30-year-old Edward Snowden, opponents of his actions have suggested that alternative, legal routes to questions the intelligence community’s tactics could have been taken, such as appealing to an inspector general. History, however, suggests that recent whistleblowers before him had a nearly impossible time doing as much, including Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive who was charged under the Espionage Act after he attempted to draw attention to waste, fraud and abuse within his agency years earlier. Speaking at an anti-NSA rally in Washington last month, Drake told a crowd of a couple thousand, “Any domestic surveillance legislation must include whistleblower protection for the credibility and enforcement of any reform effort, otherwise secrecy enforced by repression will turn into a faux reform passed into simply an honor system” for the NSA.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia said, “This year’s intelligence authorization bill achieves both objectives by providing clear guidance and appropriate resources to the intelligence community, while enhancing the committee’s oversight of vital intelligence activities.”
If signed into law, the act will allow for funding to continue with regards to a number of intelligence-gathering operations conducted not just by the likes of the NSA, but also the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Departments of Defense, State, Treasury, Energy and Justice, among others.
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